The formation of the United States lied in the desire to escape religious persecution. This factor pushed droves of Puritans, searching for freedom of practice, lifestyle choice, and expression, out of the Old World and into the New. This same desire was ever present in the thoughts, acts, and language that the Founding Fathers used in the creation and implementation of the American Constitution and Bill of Rights. The First Amendment, which secures Americans freedom of religion and freedom of speech, is perhaps the best example of this drive for a religious freedom uncoupled from the framework and imposition of the state. What the Founding Fathers had not anticipated was that a Church would abuse the liberties in place and maliciously wrest not only the meaning but the very wording of the Constitution. The Westboro Baptist Church had has a very real and very recent impact on the American religious, social, and political views.
In 1955, Fred Waldron Phelps, Sr., as an associate pastor at the East Side Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, was promoted to pastor of their new church, the Westboro Baptist Church (WBC). The following year, once the church had been formally organized, Phelps cut off all ties to the East Side Baptist Church, reasoning with the belief that “Baptists, by definition, are independent and autonomous and fiercely so. No genuine Baptist church” would be willing to “[give] its sovereignty.” (Taschler) Phelps, who is now a disbarred lawyer and a former civil rights activist, has led the WBC to protest against the social tolerance of homosexuality as early as 1991, when Shirley Phelps-Roper, daughter of Fred Phelps, claimed that a man attempted to lure her then five-year-old son Joshua into some shrubs at Gage Park, Topeka’s largest city park. The family turned to the police about men accosting children and cruising for sex at the park. Frustrated with the lack of action by police and lack of support from other churches, the family rallied up the WBC and took it upon themselves to start picketing the park, warning the public of the lewd activities and deterring would-be cruisers. Since then, they have been a vocal, driving force against the tolerance of homosexuality in Kansas and nationally.
Throughout the years, many other religious institutes have renounced any association with Phelps or the WBC, which has been labeled as a hate group by the Anti-Defamation League, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and a wide spectrum of other groups, including the Ku Klux Klan.
In February 9, 2009, there were a series of bush fires that ran rampant through the Australian state of Victoria and resulted in one-hundred and seventy-three deaths and four-hundred and fourteen injuries. The tragedy, which would later be referred to as the Black Saturday bush fires, received international attention due to the high mortality rate as well as with the help of an iconic photograph of fireman David Tree gently holding the paw of a soot-covered koala bear and feeding it bottled water. (“Australian”) Within the week, Phelps announced that God hated Australians and that the tragedy was God’s punishment for Australia’s social tolerance of homosexuality.
In response, Reverend Doctor Brian Winslade, the National Director of the Baptist Union of Australia, announced that “neither [Reverend] Fred Phelps nor the Westboro [Baptist] Church are affiliated with the Baptist Union of Australia or the Baptist World Alliance representing over one hundred million Christians.” (“Baptists”)
On February 19, 2009, the same day Winslade released his statement, British Home Secretary Jacqui Smith denied both Phelps and Phelps-Roper entry into the United Kingdom due to engaging in “unacceptable behaviour by inciting hatred against a number of communities.” Her statement went on to declare, “the [British] Government has made it clear it opposes extremism in all its forms.” (Leach) The ban stemmed from the WBC’s announcement that they planned on picketing a production of The Laramie Project, a play about the reaction of the 1998 torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay student of the University of Wyoming.
The news of Smith’s decision was immediately followed by a joint statement from six churches – the Baptist Union of Great Britain, the Evangelical Alliance United Kingdom, Faithworks, the Methodist Church of Great Britain, the United Reformed Church, and Bible Society-funded think-tank Theos – which declared that they did not share the WBC’s “hatred of lesbian and gay people.” The statement went on to declare that they “believe that God loves all, irrespective of sexual orientation” and that they will “unreservedly stand against [the WBC’s] message of hate toward those communities.” Those six churches also were part of the many groups that urged Madam Smith to deny the Phelps’ entry. (“Churches”)
On October 2010, the WBC were once again catapulted into the limelight as the Supreme Court of the United States heard arguments of the case Snyder v. Phelps, et al., in which petitioner Andrew Snyder, father of Marine Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder, sued respondents Phelps, Phelps-Roper, Rebekah Phelps-Davis, also a daughter of Fred Phelps, and the Westboro Baptist Church, Inc., for defamation, invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and civil conspiracy. The charges where brought against the three individuals as well as the congregation after picketing Snyder’s funeral with obscene slogans such as “God hates fags,” “Soldiers die 4 fag marriage,” “Fag troops,” “Semper Fi Fags,” and “Thank God for dead soldiers.” Phelps also took to his website to berate the late Snyder, who had been rared Catholic, declaring that he had been “raised for the devil” and among the pædophiles of the Catholic Church, allegations most-likely referencing the recent string of child-molestation scandals that have plagued the Holy Roman Catholic Church worldwide.
On March that following year, in a 8:1 decision, the court ruled in favor of the respondents citing that what the group did was protected speech as it was religious opinion and not actually libelous and therefore, to add insult to injury, Snyder was required to pay their legal fees. The dissent, presented by Justice Alito, the sole Justice to rule in favor of the petitioner, declared that the Second Amendment of the Bill of Rights was not a license for the group to “launch a malevolent verbal attack” on the Snyder family, making a spectacle of an already difficult and tragic task of having to bury their son, a man who had fought for our nation. The actions of the respondents revoked Snyder’s ability to do so in peace. (United)
During the tumultuous media coverage of the case, Roger S. Oldham, Vice President of Convention Relations for the Southern Baptist Executive Committee made it clear that the Southern Baptist Convention had no relations with the WBC. In addition, Oldham also expressed that the WBC’s tactics were “offensive” and reflected “poorly on Christians in general and Baptists in particular.” (“Hate-filled”)
Since the ruling, the public has reacted by counter-protesting the picketings. In the summer of 2012, after the group announced on its website plans to picket the funeral of Army Lieutenant Colonel Roy Tisdale, a soldier who lost his life at the hands of a fellow soldier – who then committed suicide – at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, the public reacted quickly. Tisdale, whose funeral service was to be in his hometown of College Station, Texas, was also a Texas A&M alum. With the help of social media, word spread throughout the campus, also in College Station, gathering student, residents, and alumni sporting the school colors, and created what they called a “maroon wall” by linking arms. Members of the WBC never made an appearance to the service. (“Texas”)
College students haven’t been alone in counter-protest efforts. A voluntary motorcycle gang primarily composed of veteran members of the armed forces and public law enforcement united to create the Patriot Guard. The sole objective of the Patriot Guard is to ride motorcycles with American flags in order to shield funeral services from the sights and sounds of the WBC protestors.
Even the white supremacy group, the Ku Klux Klan, have spoken out against the WBC’s activities. Military veteran and Imperial Wizard of a Klan chapter, Dennis LaBonte, went on to call the group “hate-mongers.” Members of the Klan also were reported to have joined counter-protests on Memorial Day 2011, when President Barack Obama, the first mixed-race President of the United States, traveled to Arlington National Cemetery to honor fallen soldiers. (Hughes)
State governments have also had to pass emergency laws whenever the WBC announces any plans to picket funeral services in their communities, in an effort to allow a respectful distance for friends and family of the diseased. The group has primarily targeted funerals of members of the armed forces, like Lance Corporal Matthew Snyder. They also announced plans to protest at funerals of the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings. The group cancelled those protests in exchange for air time at a local radio station. And while orderly and peaceful protests are protected by Constitutional Law, these particular protests have been quite inappropriate, constantly pushing the boundary. During these protests the members of the congregation hold up vulgar signs and occasionally stomp on American flags. It is common human decency that hateful rhetoric and actions intended to incite anger are considered inappropriate and have no real place in the funerals of child victims of violence. Nor do they they belong in the funerals of the women and men who have lost their lives defending their country – women and men who, ironically, have fought for the right to free speech that the group abuses.
And not to say that the group’s stance on homosexuality is theirs alone. For example, the Mormon Church, one of our present-day, fastest-growing denomination of Christianity, strongly opposes liberal views such as homosexuality, gay marriage, and abortion. (USA Today) The Mormon Church is known for funding initiatives and political campaigns that share their views. By doing so, the church has political ties that pander legislation to their whim, thus spreading its message, however, the Mormon Church, as a quite large congregation, has the financial backing to afford to. In comparison, the WBC consists primarily on the Phelps family and a sparse few members that they have welcomed in. Therefore, in an effort to push their own message, the church has taken it upon itself to picket almost anything, ranging from funerals to other places of worship to public events. The idea behind their protests is that the more they picket, the more media attention they receive, which would then spreads their message that much further. And their message is rather clear, posted up in scandalous slogans on pickets that declare “God hates fags,” “soldiers die 4 fag marriage,” and “thank God for dead soldiers.”
The difference between the Mormon Church and the Westboro Baptist Church is vast. Mormons are staunch supporters of the Armed Forces and their families. The reason behind it is not solely for the value of duty but in the belief that Jesus will return to the United States in the end of days, therefore there is a fierce need to protect the land. In contrast, the WBC welcomes the deaths of members of the Armed Forces, as punishments from God, for choosing to defend a nation that accepts what they deem immoral behavior.
By teetering the boundary between legal protest and obscene acts of hate, the Westboro Baptist Church has brought a lot of media attention to conservative Christian values. As much of a farce their picketing has made, the intolerance of homosexuality that the group holds is not all that different from the beliefs of what many in the tea party movement hold. Merely strip away the aspect of celebrating the deaths of soldiers and the root beliefs are still quite the same. They all are intolerant of homosexuality, staunchly against gay marriage, and do not believe that homosexuals should have equal rights and protection under the law.
But views are changing. In a 2010 study by UCLA, the results showed that attitudes towards gay marriage clash with those of the republican party – the approval included college freshmen “who describe themselves as politically ‘far-right.’”
Many politicians, in an effort to remain relevant and in hopes of reelection, have revised their beliefs. And this year, as the Supreme Court of the United States heard the arguments for Dennis Hollingsworth et al. v. Kristen M. Perry, et al., the case regarding the constitutionality of Proposition 8, the 2008 California ballot measure that bans gay marriage, there have been a wave of politicians announcing their support of gay marriage. The wave includes many opportunistic politicians with “evolving” views on homosexuality and marriage equality.
The determination of the WBC to spread the message of hate has not been moot. Their efforts have unintentionally been key in uniting an otherwise uninterested public – from the Ku Klux Klan to American veterans to English churches to bikers and students – and the sentiment is the same: no one likes the Westboro Baptist Church.
By perverting and abusing our country’s free speech laws to spread their religious opinion, the Westboro Baptist Church has offended and angered the American public. And with their drastic negative views on homosexuality coupled with their reprehensible activities, they have effectively alienated themselves as well as unexpectedly pushed more people toward tolerance. As counter-intuitive as it seems, the congregation’s tireless efforts have successfully united unanticipated allies and spread more social tolerance, acceptance, and love with their ardent message of hate.
“Australian Bush Fires: Thirsty Koala Becomes Australia’s Wild Fire Star.” The Telegraph. 2009. 11 Feb. 2009.
“Baptists Denounce Latest Westboro Stunt.” Christian Today Australia. 2009. 19 Feb. 2009.
Bowser, Betty Ann. “Why U.S. Views on Abortion Haven’t Changed Much.” PBS. 2013. 22 Jan. 2013.
“Churches Condemn Westboro Hate Speech, but Challenge Remains.” Ekklesia. 2009. 19 Feb. 2009.
Eckstom, Kevin. “Study: Mormonism is fastest-growing faith in half of USA.” USA Today. 2012. 2 May 2012.
“’Hate-filled’ Westboro not Southern Baptist.” Baptist Press. 2010. 7 Apr. 2010.
Hughes, Sarah Anne. The Washington Post. “Ku Klux Klan Protests Westboro Baptist Church.” 2011. 31 May 2011.
Leach, Ben. “US Church Which Calls for Homosexuals to be Killed Banned from UK.” The Telegraph. 2009. 19 Feb. 2009.
Lipka, Sara. “Approval of Gay Marriage Is Greater Among College Freshmen Than Americans at Large.” The Chronicle. 2010. 16 Mar. 2010.
Taschler, Joe, and Steven Fry. “Fate, Timing Kept Phelps in Topeka.” The Topeka Capitol-Journal. 1994. 3 Aug. 1994.
“Texas A&M Students Form Human Wall To Block Westboro Baptist Church Protestors Form Soldier Roy Tisdale’s Funeral.” The Huffington Post. 2012. 6 Jul. 2012.
United States. Supreme Court of the United States. No. 09-751: Snyder v. Phelps et al. 2011. 2 Mar. 2011.